Motor Racing: 'One of these days I guess I'll just go off the road': Keith Botsford, who covered the grand prix circuit from 1974 to 1983, recalls the sad figure behind a flamboyant personality who had a quick ascension but a long fall

Click to follow
WELL, the sobriquet Master James is one I gave him, and Texaco used it in his brief hour of triumph, and it stuck. That's what he was: the junior in the family, well treated by the butler, rather fancying himself, perhaps a school bully, really a rather weak character, and immensely likeable - if, that is, you liked madcaps.

Too equine to be really good looking, too self-regarding to be a true friend, too insecure to be a real champion (someone who proves his mastery time and time again), not quite enough of a gentleman to mix with the best, but definitely to the manor born, Master James was the first man I met in motor racing. He was kindness itself. The place was Barcelona, the race an ill-fated one (Rolf Stommelen went off and scythed through the crowd, I was 50 yards away) and the old Olympic Stadium in the Montjuic Park a seedy paddock: not his style, so we went off and had a long, boozy lunch at the Caracoles.

At the time he was accompanied by Suzy, who was long, cool, musical (she aspired to playing the piano at midnight, she aspired to have Master James a serious man - but that was hopeless) and diaphanous.

The more he drank in the heat and the flies buzzed about us, the more truculent Master James became. For him the sport was, yes, something one could exploit: yes, 'jolly good fun', especially the banging-about bit, the 'mixing it up'; but essentially a lark. Why, I asked myself, wasn't he having any real fun out of it?

Competition ran deep in him, and I remember one time, in Brazil, on baking tennis courts, when we decided to have a mano a mano as to who played the better tennis. I was giving away a quarter of century, and Master James certainly looked fit, but when it got to 6-6, then 7-7, then 8-8 and both of us looked like lobsters, we had the good sense to call it quits. But the next day he was back. Then in Watkins Glen he wanted to set up a doubles match with Paul Newman and Ringo, but he wanted to choose who was the least bad; he lost anyway. So he came back again the next year at Kyalami. When tennis didn't work he tried ping-pong. I put in this history to show that he was dogged. Maybe the answer to why he didn't have fun was that he wasn't really talented enough to be a natural, but dogged enough to insist he was better than he really was.

A big man, he wrestled with cars rather than let them do their work. He drove with great panache and tenacity and regularly took risks. A fair part of the racing fraternity looked down on him. He wasn't professional, he didn't train, he didn't slave, he was a technical ignoramus. But they didn't see that in that respect Master James was the kind of vital bridge the sport needed between the Formula One that was and the Formula One in the making. Difficult as this may be to believe, even McLaren was once a fun place, and Niki Lauda, his best friend in racing, was a mischief maker. They would send false messages to officials just to see what the expression on their faces would be.

In later years he was an altogether sadder figure. I recall an occasion in the cramped quarters of the Queen Mary beached in Long Beach. By then Master James's face had elongated, Suzy had gone, the delectable, Jane Birbeck had gone, but Master James still had to exercise his appetites. In a way, it was the only kind of triumphalism he had left. The room was a wreck of scattered sheets, and James sat at the edge of his bunk holding his head in his hands. I asked him why he bothered to repeat himself so unvaryingly, so senselessly. He looked up and said: 'It's all right for you to talk that way, you're a happy man. This is the only kind of fun that's left for me and by now it costs me far too much to do properly.'

It was then that I saw he really wanted to be dead: because he wasn't having any fun. A year later (I think) we were in Madrid, in the Hotel Barajas where he stayed (he was ending his career with Walter Wolf) and I asked him why he went on, since he wasn't getting anywhere. We were two years down from his championship and he was declining both in his forces, his cars and his judgement. He said: 'I don't know what I'd do if I didn't do this. One of these days I guess I'll just go off the road.'

Well, he did what he had done already when racing. When he quit, he did drugs, he did drink, he did girls, he could have done a Lord Lucan (he greatly admired Ronnie Biggs, whom he regularly visited in Rio). There was a big crater inside his mind, and he just hadn't had quite enough education, or friends of the right sort, to get him over the hump. The year of his championship was an agony for him. In the way England does, it heaped expectation on its hero; but its hero - unreported, for we were mostly a decent lot - was terrified to even get into a car, much less race in one.

He had had his accidents, going way back to his early days, and back then they were fun and showed grit; now they haunted him ('Hunt the Shunt'), and he had seen the accidents of others and knew he would soon have one, a last one, himself. To calm his nerves, he smoked his dope; to pep himself up, he snorted his coke. But it was always a joke, he said. Save that the man's face, his character, and even his driving, began to reflect his vices.

Then, when it came to the showdown in Japan, and it was raining, and gloomy, and he hated himself, hated the track, didn't want to go out, led the endless palavering among the drivers (while others called him 'chicken') he managed - blind, I think, to the consequences, and quite possibly blind, and not for the first time, to what he was doing - to push himself, finish third and become champion.

I know what he felt because he told me: relief. He had filled everyone's expectation and now he could give it up. Compared to today, he earned chickenfeed; and what he earned went on pleasures that palled. If the Commendatore (in Don Giovanni, not Enzo Ferrari) had called on him to repent, you knew damn well Master James would have said no.

I don't know if that's heroism or folly. It was in his fate that he would have a brief ascension, and a long fall. The man lacked prolongation: he could extend neither his skills, his mind, nor his relationships, and that's very sad.

Obituary, page 24

(Photograph omitted)